Sophie Masson is a highly successful Australian author.
We define success by the fact that she writes full-time and is in the exclusive club of authors who make a living from their words.
She has just completed a book called The Adaptable Author, Coping with Change in a Digital Age, published by the Australian Society of Authors’ Keesing Press, in which she interviews 32 authors, five literary agents and five publishers about what’s happening in the industry.
This, combined with the fact that Masson has just finished a three-year term as president of the society of authors, makes her words current and believable.
“Getting published is every aspiring author’s dream, the focus of enormous energy, hopes and fears,” she says.
But that’s just the start.
“Maintaining a sustainable, money-earning career as a professional author has never been an easy task, at any time,” she says.
“But in a modern publishing industry, in the middle of rapid and turbulent transformation over the last five to seven years, it has become even more challenging.
“Building a writer’s profile slowly, over time, simply isn’t an option anymore for most publishers, as the mid-list is squeezed and rapid staff turnovers in many companies make it that much harder to maintain an ongoing relationship with authors.”
The business of authorship, the writing of books, is in transition.
Here’s what she says in the book:
The retail landscape for books has changed
The decline of the chain store (Angus &Robertson and Borders have gone out of business), which used to represent 60% of book sales, has meant losses in the middle of the market. After the GFC, people are less likely to take a risk on buying a book from an author they don’t know.
Book prices have dropped
The average price paid for a hard copy book in 2004 was $19.60 and in 2010 it was $18.98. Ebooks go for a lot less, as little as 99 cents. There’s also some aggressive retail discounting of books. Less profits means publishers are less likely to take a risk on a first-time author.
Digital Gains are not yet replacing print losses
The rise of the ebook and electronic readers hasn’t made up for falls in print sales. As prices drop, publisher profits decline and author royalties with them. Ebooks sell for substantially less than hard copy books. This means that an author’s actual dollar return is smaller compared to a traditional book.
Print advances are smaller and marketing budgets have shrunk
The cash offered upfront to authors keeps getting smaller. Sophie Masson says she gets told by publishers that her next advance against future sales will be smaller than the previous one. The standard in educational publishing now appears to be around $500.
There are fewer big publishers but more small presses
The industry has been subject to consolidation with a series of mergers and acquisitions globally. This means fewer outlets for authors and it makes it harder for a first-time author to get published. And anyone who wants to be published should go through a literary agent because publishers will talk to them. Publishers rarely listen to first-time authors direct. There’s been growth in small, independent presses. This is a positive but means that if you publish with them they only have a small or no marketing budgets.
External factors such as the GFC have meant the loss of overseas markets
The overseas market for Australian books is in decline. Since the GFC it’s become more difficult to sell overseas rights, especially in the UK and the US, unless it is a very well known author.
The relationship between authors and publishers is changing
Authors are being asked to write faster as books are perceived to have a shorter shelf life. Some publishers are pitching to authors rather than the other way round, becoming more proactive in approaching with ideas for books, especially for children’s and young adult series. Some authors are choosing to self-publish and doing deals with online retailers. Australian publishers are increasingly bypassing overseas publishers and marketing local titles internationally. Authors are also expected to do a lot more marketing.
Books and authors have less time to find readers
Backlist sales are shrinking along with shelf space in book stores. Early sales of a book are now crucial. Book sellers are less likely to put your first and second books out.
Booksellers are relying heavily on Nielsen BookScan data
Booksellers are less likely to take the word of a publisher on whether or not an author will sell. The bookseller goes to the official BookScan numbers and makes decisions on the sales of the author’s last book. It’s now more difficult to get a contract for a new book, no matter how good it is, if the last book didn’t sell well.
(Disclosure: Chris Pash is a Member of the Board of Directors of the Australian Society of Authors)
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